Look at any map of England in the middle-ages and you are unlikely to find Birmingham, Manchester or Leeds, three of the most important cities in recent times. You will however find Hereford.
Throughout my lifetime Hereford has tended to be seen as a rural backwater, an agricultural market town. True, in the nineteen fifties and sixties there was an influx of major industry accompanied by an increase in population. But the city and its surrounding countryside has remained essentially a provincial community, attractive to wealthy individuals wishing to escape the rat-race of big city life.
Eight hundred years ago it was very different. After the Norman Conquest the baronial families that migrated from Normandy and Aquitaine wanted to extend their influence westward into Wales.
The native Welsh had other ideas and the Normans struggled to pacify them. King William charged a number of these families with the task of maintaining a buffer zone along the border between England and Wales. This zone was called “the Welsh Marches” and the heads of the families “Marcher Lords”.
Hereford was at the centre of this zone and played a key role in the defence of the conquered lands from incursions by the Welsh. Some of the families who held the role of Marcher Lords took on leading roles in the government of England; one lead a counter rebellion, securing the release of the king’s son, the future king Edward I, from captivity in Hereford castle. That man’s grandson was to have an affair with Edward I’s daughter-in-law and arrange for the murder of Edward II thus becoming de-facto ruler for the three years until Edward III was old enough to become king and had him be-headed.
And when a deposed provincial king from Ireland came seeking outside assistance for a campaign to restore his position it was men from the Welsh Marches who took up his cause.